In the list of 81 people conferred the Padma Shri Awards for 2013 is Ritu Kumar, India’s senior-most fashion designer; a veteran soldier of craft and textile revivalism. Inexplicably, it is the first time in 66 years since Independence that a Padma award has been given to a fashion designer. If that’s not odd enough, the fact that Kumar’s name sits on the same list as actor Sridevi Kapoor’s and anti-cellulite industrialist Vandana Luthra of VLCC brings up a few loaded issues. Not only does it make evident the little regard the Indian government has for the fashion industry, it also disrobes the irony that a veteran designer with such an influential body of work had to wait in the wings till a contemporary textile revolution is almost exploding in our faces. For the 68-year-old Kumar, who began working—and I love repeating her own phrase--as a barefoot doctor of textiles in the early Seventies with revival projects in the district of Serampore and Ranihati in West Bengal, the award is too little and comes too late.
Kumar, who was taken by surprise when she heard of her Padma Shri, isn’t particularly perturbed by its size or timing. She agrees though that it is an acknowledgement of the influence textiles have on fashion today. I called her in a particularly belligerent mood to ask if she was upset. But she stuck to her steadfastness and clarity that also define her working spirit. Instead of getting carried away, she said fashion just hasn’t been among the disciplines honoured in these six decades like art, science, medicine, industry, design and sports among others. That view, she hopes, is changing.
Kumar agrees that fashion suffers from a perception problem. It is seen as a hedonistic and celebratory space. The notion is primarily evoked by images of revelry in popular media that do little to represent the work the industry does. What is actually both art and design, even social work given the alternatives it provides to rural artisans is largely viewed as a partying club ruled by the rich, the glamorous or by film stars. For reasons that only indicate the government’s reluctance to read beyond images, fashion is treated as inferior to the handicraft and textile sector which itself hasn’t been given its due place when it comes to worthiness of cause. After decades of change-oriented work that also leads to sustainability options, Laila Tyabji, Chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople, was awarded the Padma Shri only last year (for “handicrafts” as the list mandated). While Runa Banerjee, co-founder of Sewa, Lucknow, was conferred one in 2007 for social work.
“We are an indigenous and holistic industry. What we do with our textiles is not necessarily fashion and uniquely, unlike other industries, are not dictated by what Paris wants the world to wear,” says Kumar, her emotions surfacing momentarily.
She dressed beauty queens for decades giving them global-Indian gear for international pageants and went on to create the house of Ritu Kumar, one of the most commercially successful fashion enterprises of the country. Not only that, for years Kumar was on the Handloom Board of India and sat on the national jury to select award-winning master craftspersons. Even before all that, it was Kumar who laid the first brick in the bridge between textiles and fashion that the industry so confidently gallops on today. Her Tree of Life exhibitions that toured in India and abroad didn’t just tell us about the diversity of our crafts but also sounded the bugle on why Indian fashion had the potential to evolve and hold its own in a world that clones creativity instead of imagining it originally.
It is not mere coincidence then that Kumar designed the costumes for Deepa Mehta’s cinematic interpretation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. She understands what inheritance is all about—of both gain and loss. She deserves better.
This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words.